04/29/2016

Fecal Matter Transplants, a Moon for Pluto ‘Sibling,’ and Tweeting Sharks

11:50 minutes

Shark, from Shutterstock
Shark, from Shutterstock

Fecal matter transplants are a process in which gut microbes from a healthy patient are transplanted to the gut of someone suffering from infections like Clostridium difficile. A recent study has new insights on how transplanted microbes change the recipient’s gut flora and on the importance of compatibility between the two hosts. Rachel Feltman from the Washington Post’s Speaking of Science blog shares how this finding could affect the growing field of microbiome research. She also discusses other top science stories from the week.

Plus, a look at the good and the bad of having sharks use social media.

Segment Guests

Rachel Feltman

Rachel Feltman is author of Been There, Done That: A Rousing History of Sex, and is executive editor at Popular Science in New York, New York.

Claudia Geib

Claudia Geib is a freelance science writer based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. A little later in the show, we’re going to investigate spooky action at a distance and other mysteries of quantum physics, but first fecal transplants may sound a little gross. OK, maybe very gross. After all, they involve transferring microbes from someone else’s poop, but such transplants are rapidly gaining credibility in the medical world, and new research could tell us more about how to do them successfully for a broader set of conditions.

Here to explain what this all means for potential patients, plus other news from the week is Rachel Feltman. She writes the Speaking of Science blog for the Washington Post. She’s here in New York. Welcome back to Science Friday, Rachel.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Thanks for having me again, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Tell us what’s at the top of the list here.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah, so poop transplants, great news for poop transplants. Essentially, there’s this new study trying to determine how to make these transplants better. Right now there’s FDA approval for C. diff infections, one kind of bacteria. Horrible, horrible infections.

And essentially doctors just want to make this broader. They want to treat other kinds of stomach infections with poop transplants, and they also would like to investigate looking at weight loss, anything that might be related to the microbiome of the stomach, which frankly could be anything.

So this study looked at patients, and instead of just looking at the species of bacteria in them, it looked at the specific strains. And it turns out that when you look at that resolution, you get this very interesting picture of what happens when you transplant the microbial matter. It looks like a lot of the donor’s microbes actually coexist with the patient’s microbes. They are just different strains of the same bacteria.

And that’s not what doctors really thought was happening. They thought that the good bacteria was always beating out the bad bacteria. They also noticed that having the same species, but different strains, made the donation more likely to take, probably because those bacteria didn’t seem like foreign invaders. So it’s basically showing that we probably need to think less about having these super healthy donors who are great for everyone, and more about what individual donor might be good for an individual patient.

IRA FLATOW: So you have to tailor it a little bit more–

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yes.

IRA FLATOW: –to the person.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Right, and that there were other studies coming up this week on the microbiome, trying to determine what is that ideal gut microbiome. And they found a lot of interesting things about what makes your microbiome vary, but they were very frustrated. They were not able to conclude that there’s one healthy gut microbiome. So it really may be an individual, tailored therapy.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on to the very strange happenings at the Large Hadron Collider. Tell us about a weasel.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Right, so at the LHC, there are not going to be any experiments for the next few days. And it’s because of a weasel. An actual weasel that presumably chewed on some wiring and caused a power cut. And people are loving the story. Because it’s so funny that this– the biggest scientific instrument in the world, that’s 17 miles in circumference, and this little weasel has shut it down.

But actually, in 2009 there was a shutdown that they blamed on a bird. Some people say the bird actually dropped a baguette onto the wiring.

IRA FLATOW: I remember that.

RACHEL FELTMAN: The baguette is unconfirmed, but they do think it was bird-related. So yeah, the weasel is, unfortunately, deceased, but the LHC will be fine. It just needs a few days to make sure everything’s OK.

IRA FLATOW: So it got fried by the wiring, the weasel did?

RACHEL FELTMAN: Well, yeah, the weasel did get fried, unfortunately. That science-hating weasel.

IRA FLATOW: So have they put a guard or a fence or anything? It’s an expensive piece of equipment, right?

RACHEL FELTMAN: Right, but it’s also out in the countryside, so stuff happens. But maybe they will try to do some pest control. I’m not sure.

IRA FLATOW: Somebody permanent, running up and down there.

Also, let’s talk about the bedbugs. There’s a story about bedbugs have a sense of aesthetics.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yes. Bedbugs, apparently, have favorite colors. Researchers found that they prefer red and black over other colors, and they strongly dislike yellow and green. But you shouldn’t go out and buy new sheets just yet, because the thing is that bedbugs spend most of their time in the dark. And generally, when you turn on your lights, bedbugs have already picked their hiding places.

So if you had black sheets and your lights were out, and a bedbug hid in your bed, they probably wouldn’t notice or care that those sheets were black or yellow or whatever. It’s only when the researchers have been doing this in the light that they were able to see the colors and had a preference. So there may be some applications for designing better traps, but the truth is, because of the way bedbugs live mostly in the dark, it’s probably not going to have super strong implications for New Yorkers trying to keep them out of their apartments.

IRA FLATOW: Darn.

[LAUGHTER]

Do we know why they have a preference for these colors?

RACHEL FELTMAN: No, and you know, there was some interesting nuance. They always really liked red and black and they always really didn’t like yellow and green, but in terms of other colors, there was a lot of variation based on age, sex, whether they were hungry or not. So it’s really not clear what’s going on in their little heads.

IRA FLATOW: Well, I don’t know.

Lastly, an astronaut finishes a marathon in space, on the space station.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yes. Tim Peake already broke a record by being the first official British astronaut to be on the International Space Station. He’s not the first astronaut to run a marathon there. That was a US astronaut, Sunita Williams, in 2007. But he did break a record by beating her time, so he is now the fastest marathon runner in orbit. He ran the London Marathon.

And his time was actually within a few minutes of the time he made on Earth in 1999, which I thought was very impressive, because he had to do it with the muscle weakness associated with space travel, and also wearing this very bulky harness to keep him tethered to the treadmill. So he did a good job. It’s the time to beat.

IRA FLATOW: Well, shouldn’t they be keeping separate male and female records?

RACHEL FELTMAN: Right–

IRA FLATOW: The International Space Station for marathon running?

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yes. So his is the time to beat for male astronaut marathon runners now.

IRA FLATOW: Maybe it’s an annual event.

RACHEL FELTMAN: I think it should be. I mean, again, the last one was back in 2007, so we really should try to do this more than once every decade.

IRA FLATOW: Or else you get rusty.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah, I guess being an astronaut is kind of a lot of work already, so maybe training for a marathon is more than most of them want to do.

IRA FLATOW: All right, well, we’ll keep track. Thank you. Rachel Feltman writes a blog for the Washington Post and she’s here in our New York studio. Her blog is Speaking of Science.

And now it’s time to play Good Thing, Bad Thing.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Because every story has a flip side. Here’s a question. What weighs about 3,500 pounds, lives in the Atlantic Ocean, and has over 90,000 followers on Twitter? Give up? It’s a shark named Mary Lee, and animal researchers are putting data from living things like sharks onto social networks. You might get a tweet telling you just when your favorite shark, maybe Mary Lee is going to come swimming by that week, and you get a tweet.

Here to talk about the potential ups and downs of tweeting sharks is Science Friday’s Claudia Geib, and you could read her story about Mary Lee and other sharks on social media in Undark Magazine. Welcome to Science Friday.

CLAUDIA GEIB: Hi, Ira, thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: OK, so what’s good about this?

CLAUDIA GEIB: So as you might expect, sharks have kind of a reputation problem. We still really think of them as man eaters and being dangerous, but the reality is that humans kill over 100 million sharks every year. That’s a conservative estimate. So a lot of shark researchers see putting their data online and making these social media accounts as putting a friendlier face on sharks, because a lot of the conservation efforts that have worked really well for animals, are animals like whales and eagles that people really love and identify with.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, because they’re getting killed almost to extinction in some places, aren’t they? They kill 100 million of them a year?

CLAUDIA GEIB: Exactly, that’s the running estimate, but some people say it’s higher. And it’s really a problem where shark fin soup is popular, which is big in Asia.

IRA FLATOW: Do towns like knowing there are sharks out there? Can you tweet and say the shark is in the neighborhood?

CLAUDIA GEIB: Well, that’s kind of gets into the bad side of it. Some people are really excited to learn that there’s a shark swimming offshore, but some people might not realize that they’re there, and hearing that there’s a shark nearby on social media might be a little bit of a nasty surprise.

[LAUGHTER]

IRA FLATOW: Well, I guess, don’t the bathers have a right to know there’s a shark out there?

CLAUDIA GEIB: They do, and there are a lot of different ways. In Australia they’ve been experimenting with tweets being sent out when a shark passes a certain buoy, so that bathers can check their phone and see there’s a shark nearby. Maybe we should get out of the water.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, I can understand that. And summertime and Jaws is coming up again. So I understand–

CLAUDIA GEIB: Of course.

IRA FLATOW: –the concern. And there has been criticism of how the sharks are tagged, hasn’t there?

CLAUDIA GEIB: Right. So one of the really visible groups, it’s called OCEARCH, and they are kind of the standout group because a lot of the sharks on social media come from their tagging program. And they have a great science program, but their communication is not always great.

So one incident that’s kind of caught people’s attention is, in 2012 there was a body surfer attacked in South Africa, and that happened just two days after OCEARCH use chum in the area, which is basically just dead, bloody fish. And a lot of people think of that this chum might have changed the shark’s behavior and made it attack a human.

So now people are asking OCEARCH, are you using chum, or are you not using chum, and they haven’t really been clear about that. So those methods make people a little less trusting of people tagging sharks, despite the fact that it is a really valuable tool for researchers.

IRA FLATOW: Speaking of that, are there are other animals on Twitter, tweeting as they go about?

CLAUDIA GEIB: There are, actually. There’s a cougar in Los Angeles that’s kind of an urban adapter who has a Twitter account, and there was a snake that escaped from the Bronx Zoo that has its own Twitter account. And I think it’s mostly angry that it’s back in the zoo.

[LAUGHTER]

IRA FLATOW: Not to mention the fact that you can’t tweet back.

CLAUDIA GEIB: Exactly.

IRA FLATOW: The shark has 90,000 followers.

CLAUDIA GEIB: Yeah. It’s surprising to look at these sharks’ feeds and see how much people really interact with them.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Well, these animals are always very popular, and certainly we’ll watch for their Facebook pages, I guess. That would be next.

CLAUDIA GEIB: I’m sure that’ll be next.

IRA FLATOW: Claudia, thank you for taking time to be with us today.

CLAUDIA GEIB: Definitely, thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Happy tweeting, to you. Claudia Geib is a freelance science writer and you can read her story about sharks on social media in Undark Magazine.

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